As our paper industry declines, tourism has become Maine’s strongest economic driver. Visitors come for our quality of place, embodied by clean water, clean air and a beautiful landscape. Despite Maine’s pristine environmental reputation, the invisible reality is that we have the highest per capita carbon pollution and oil use in New England.
To keep people coming, and to re-energize our economy, Maine needs a powerful vision for its future that inspires both the visitor and the resident. An example of such a vision is the city of Vancouver’s goal of becoming the greenest city in the world by 2020.
Like tourism-dependent Vancouver, Maine has zero indigenous fossil fuels, but we do have abundant renewable resources in the form of wind, tidal, biomass and solar energy.
The Gulf of Maine has been described as the “Saudi Arabia of wind.” Our coastal waters boast some of the strongest tides on earth. After 100 years of harvest for the pulp and paper industry, Maine is still the most heavily forested state in the nation. And while it’s counterintuitive that a Northern state like Maine would have a strong solar resource, we actually get 33 percent more sunshine per year than Germany, the world leader in solar energy.
How can Maine use what’s here to accelerate its economy, create jobs and protect the natural assets so attractive to visitors and residents alike? First, let’s establish a common visionary goal like turning Maine into the economic and environmental crown jewel of New England. The purpose of this goal is to get all Mainers pulling in the same direction, regardless of politics, age and religion, because that direction benefits all – including the 500 people who lost their jobs at Verso in Bucksport.
Mainers export $5 billion per year from the local economy to import fossil fuels from away. Today 400,000 Maine homes heat with oil, each burning 800 gallons of fuel per year, resulting in 18,000 pounds of carbon pollution.
The good news is that we can replace an oil boiler with an automated pellet boiler to reduce the fuel cost by 20 percent, reduce carbon pollution by 90 percent and keep 100 percent of a Mainer’s heating dollars right here in the local economy.
With nearly half a million oil boilers to be replaced, why not retrain paper mill workers for biomass jobs and put them to work transitioning us away from the oil that is hurting our economy and polluting our environment?
While Maine’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and the resulting carbon pollution is threatening to our tourism industry, our marine fisheries industries and our way of life, there are economic development and job creation opportunities in confronting our problems.
For example, ocean acidification is already harming Maine’s $56 million clamming industry. Yet we send thousands of boats out onto our lakes and coastal waters, burning fuel and exacerbating the acidification problem.
To solve the pollution problem and launch an entire new industry, why not create the “Tesla of Boats” and capitalize on the phenomenal growth occurring in the electric vehicle industry nationwide?
Practical Mainers are already using solar electricity to charge their electric cars, allowing them to drive on sunshine for about 4 cents per mile, while it costs about 15 cents per mile for a similar sized gas-powered car. And while the solar industry in neighboring states like New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont is growing rapidly, Maine is in a holding pattern because of the lack of policies and incentives that encourage the adoption of solar energy.
Despite Maine’s powerful solar resource, we are still building new homes without any consideration of solar orientation and without any intentional roof design to maximize solar energy harvest – even though we have no indigenous fossil fuels and the stuff from away exposes us to price and supply volatility.
The good news is that in 2014, the solar energy industry job growth rate was 22 percent; all other industries combined had a job growth rate of 1.1 percent. Today there are 174,000 solar energy jobs in the U.S., which is more jobs than the entire coal industry. With just a modest level of encouraging policy, Maine’s solar industry could quickly grow into the powerful economic driver that we see in the New England states to our south.
We could similarly accelerate Maine’s offshore wind industry, our nascent tidal power industry and our biomass industry if we challenged ourselves to become the economic and environmental crown jewel of New England. How much of that $5 billion per year in energy costs could we keep right here at home by harvesting clean, renewable energy to displace the need for polluting energy sources from away?